Saturday, April 25, 2009

Do Bankrupt Companies Dream of Electric Cars?

The future of cars comes into electrifying focus, courtesy of Israel.

A recent NYTimes article outlined a way to make electric cars practical even at modest battery capacity- by replacing the battery as needed on the fly, rather than waiting around to recharge. I found it a very persuasive idea, clarifying the future of the automobile.

There have been several schemes floating around for this future:
  • Renunciation- cars are bad and we should do without them, building transit for short and long distances that is more efficient than single cars.
  • Virtual reality- we eventually plug into a Matrix-like virtual reality where it would make no difference where we are. Telecommuting is only the beginning!
  • Hydrogen- a clean, light-weight fuel to replace gasoline, producing no CO2.
  • Biofuels- gasoline made from recently deceased plants rather than long-deceased plants stored courtesy of earth's geology.
  • Electric vehicles- Electricity is easy to use, and clean, like hydrogen. Whatever the fuel source, all cars are becoming electric cars for efficiency and usability reasons, as shown by today's hybrids, so there is an inherent advantage to also using electricity as the fueling medium.
I think that hydrogen is the most significant loser here, demanding a huge new infrastructure with few significant advantages over the other options. Hydrogen doesn't grow on trees- it has to be made from some other energy source. And on top of that, hydrogen is absurdly difficult to handle and transport safely and cheaply. Indeed, one suspects that hydrogen has been some kind of enormous car industry head-fake plus government boondoggle, based on a prejudice for liquid or quasi-liquid fuels.

Biofuels are impossible as far as large scale use goes, though they will be an important source of specialty chemicals and feedstocks. It is not clear that there are enough recently deceased plants to go around. Making fuel from corn that takes more petroleum to grow than it yields ... that has turned out to be a very bad idea. Shortages of arable land and water are bad enough for growing food- growing fuel is simply not possible or desirable on very large scales.

Renunciation is not going to happen if there is any technological means around it, with the developing world becomming as car-mad as the US (and rightly so, if not for the environmental costs). Virtual reality is sure to be a long-term winner, especially for long-range travel, but bodily travel will still be required for some decades at least. One problem to keep in mind, however, is that making cars themselves is energy and resource-intensive, so some amount of moderation in usage can not but be a good thing, from an environmental perspective.

Electricity, like hydrogen, has to be made somewhere else, and battery storage is not yet at the density of gasoline, making trip range small in current electric cars. It is amazing, really, how slow and painful progress has been in this field, similar to the difficulties in storing large amounts of hydrogen in adsorbed form, or making solar electric panels a few percent more efficient. Electricity storage seems likely to make significantly more progress once market incentives rise, but so far, batteries are not quite ready to substitute for gas tanks, as shown by the price of a truly practical vehicle based on the most advanced technology- the $100,000 Tesla.

The article cited above described an innovative way to deal with the problem of low battery storage capacity, which is to swap out batteries as needed, virtually on the go. A car could make a one-minute pit stop after going 50 miles, get a new battery, and be off in a jiffy with a full charge. While normal use would involve recharging one's own battery after a daily commute, the prospect of being able to swap out batteries on the fly during a long trip is enormously freeing, completing the set of basic conditions needed for an electric car future, even assuming no advances in battery performance at all. Then as battery technology slowly improves, swapping would become less frequent, batteries would weigh less, and the whole system would get increasingly efficient and convenient.

The article profiled the entrepreneur who has started operations in Israel, benefiting from key political support and a dense, small market that would benefit greatly by kicking its oil habit. They are partnering with Renault, which (alone among car companies) has promised to produce an electric vehicle with swap-able batteries. The Israeli company then would set up service stations with stocks of batteries, charging customers at profitable rates over very low cost of the electricity needed.

With peak oil, Middle East entanglement, and Climate change all looming to crisis proportions, transcending fossil fuels can not happen soon enough, and having a clear, practical path to the future of cars should have a galvanizing effect. All that is needed is one simple policy change: charge more money for fossil fuels, in accordance with their true holistic costs. But shamefully, Congress is eviscerating Obama's cap-and-trade program into a giveaway to big polluters.

This is the time to act. As the auto industry resets, we have a golden opportunity to reorient to the future, not with government regulation and meddling, but with simple, economy-wide incentives that will get us past these dirty, indeed lethal, fuels. If American car companies do not fall over each other setting up partnerships and standards to allow battery swapping in their future electric vehicles, the domestic car industry may never recover from its current insolvency, ever.


  1. I'm going to do something I rarely do, which is agree with you. Indeed, we do need to re-think the way we "fuel" our transportation needs and economy. I almost think we need another "Manhatten" type project to accomplish this--we need that sort of urgency. I might quibble with some parts, but in the main, your post is well written and thoughtful. Thank you.

  2. Thanks so much for your encouragement. New technical innovations would be helpful, but mostly, we need political will and foresight. As I tried to point out, the simple (but fought tooth and nail by almost every interest group imaginable) step of pricing-in all the external costs of fossil fuels would make alternatives immediately practical, and would prompt the kind of innovation that markets are classically good at.

    In the Manhattan project, the fundamental theory of the bomb was clear- it had already been vouched for by Albert Einstein, of all people(!). In our current energy muddle, there are lots of possible options, which would best be selected in a (dare I say it?) Darwinian way by the markets, once the proper incentive landscape is established. I can take a stab at guessing at what would work best, but the problem is dispersed enough and large enough that there is room for many experiments.

    There may be some economic commons issues with service station standards, and power grid integration with electric cars, and unanticipated environmental issues with solar and wind electricity generation, and so forth. But on the whole, the refueling problem is that the current fuels are too cheap in nominal terms while bleeding us dry in countless ways not apparent at the pump.

    With appreciation...